Recent Reading: Roaming Through Books

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m too anxious to be an easy real life traveler, but I love going places in books. And I have been of late.

Non-Fiction

A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor

The first part of Fermor’s walk across Europe (“from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube”) in the mid-1930s, when he was in his late teens. I understand why some people love this and others think it’s boring and pretentious. The focus is more on history, architecture and landscape than on people, though he meets some great characters. My reading experience was a lot like walking across Europe; it was slow, parts felt like a slog, and then you’d turn the corner and see an amazing vista. I loved the painterly passages, like where he reflects that the landscape seems familiar because of all the Dutch paintings he’s seen in English galleries. (I’d quote some, but I had to take it back to the library). It reminded me of Rory Stewart’s (much more intrepid, some might say crazy) walk across Afghanistan, recounted in The Places In BetweenThese men share something with the explorers of Victorian Britain, or the climbers tackling Everest in the 20s whom Wade Davis brings to life in Into the Silence. (Highly recommend both those books). There’s something romantic and larger-than-life about them, but they’d make awful romance heroes, really, always leaving you for a mountain or a wild place.

Far From Home: Families of the Westward Journey, Lillian Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens, and Elizabeth Hampsten

The accounts of three families who migrate to the Western US, ranging from 1850-1910. It’s like Little House on the Prairie: The Really Dark Years (or, the Subtext). The authors excerpt letters and and a memoir, weaving them into a coherent narrative and providing some historical context. In the end, they reflect on the fact that Americans like to see their nation as rooted in the family, but that migration to the frontier–another hallmark of American identity–often put tremendous strains on families, even destroyed them. I learned about it from Marilyn at Mean Fat Old Bat, I think, or maybe Tamara Allen. Thanks, whoever it was!

I thought a lot about my own westward migration as I read. I’m wealthier than the families in these books, and thanks to that and modern technology better able to travel and keep in touch with people, but moving west and across a border has certainly loosened my ties with my extended family. I regret that both for myself and my children.

Mystery

Vanishing Act, Thomas Perry

First of the popular Jane Whitefield series. This one didn’t entirely work for me. Jane helps people disappear, and in this book she traveled across the US, to Canada, and into the forests of upstate New York. I was interested in the way Jane, who has Seneca heritage, sees landscape as a kind of palimpsest, modern towns overlaying Native American history (we see some glimpses of modern reservation life, too). Part of my problem, though, was that this seemed a bit Wise Mystic Indian and Jane too superhero/Mary Sue.

Wife of the Gods, Kwei Quartey

I’ve had this Ghana-set mystery in my audio TBR (TBL?) forever. The mystery part was fairly conventional, but the setting was great, especially the tension between modern beliefs and ways of life and older ones. Less folksy than Alexander McCall Smith (though there’s a dark side to his books, too). I recently read the first of Malla Nunn’s South African-set series, too, and I’m on the lookout for more African-set mysteries.

Romance

Betty Neels’ Cassandra By Chance (link to my Goodreads review) took me to The Isle of Mull (I’d really like to go to the Hebrides some day) and, of course, Holland. The first part of the book was the best, and made this my favorite Neels so far. The second part fell back on some silly misunderstandings/secret-keeping to create conflict, and thus missed the chance at a more romantic and emotional conclusion.

Minerva, by Marion Chesney, is set in the familiar world of the Regency romance. It was a journey into the past of genre romance, though, because it’s from 1984. Chesney’s omniscient narrator has a hint of Austen’s acid–she’s not afraid to make her heroine a bit of a prig, or to say so. The book was more comedy of manners than romance, and drawn in broad strokes, but it was fun. You could never get away with this kind of narrator–or, probably, this kind of comedy–in romance today, and that’s too bad.

Another one from the TBL list on the iPod was Nora Roberts’ most recent romantic suspense title, The Witness. It disappointed me (maybe I expected too much), and I explain why here. The police chief hero reminded me of her Northern Lights, which I enjoyed more, maybe because of its “exotic” Alaskan setting.

There was also, of course, the largely fantasy Greece of Sarah Morgan’s Sold to the Enemythough I appreciated her realistic nods to the economic crisis there.

And finally, Iowa (I’ve been there; my grandparents are buried in our eponymous town), via Abigail Strom’s Cross My Heart, which I read thanks to Jessica’s review. It was an easy, engaging read that perfectly suited my mood. Though I found it clichéd at times (it’s hard to believe a late-30s hero with a constant “primitive” hard-on around the heroine) I liked the use of music, the teenage daughter, and the ending, which did not go where I thought/feared it would, and was pretty sweet and satisfying.

Where am I now? A late Victorian seaside resort in The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee, Chalion (which is apparently based on Castile and Léon) in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion (I decided it wasn’t breaking Lent to use my Audible credits), and colonial South Africa in Martin Meredith’s doorstopper history, Diamonds, Gold and War. So far, all successful trips, especially the Bujold.

Been anywhere good in a book lately?

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9 Responses to Recent Reading: Roaming Through Books

  1. SonomaLass says:

    I love the Hebrides, even though sea travel is the worst for me. Mull is lovely. I am eager to get back to Western Scotland this summer.

    I recently finished Andrea K. Höst’s Touchstone trilogy, which is a lot about travel to new worlds and how worlds are connected. The world building was strong, so I feel like I’ve armchair traveled quite a distance.

    I liked The Witness, but it’s the heroine I remember. So many interesting issues about identity, too. I read it though, so no idea of the audiobook quality.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The audio was well done. And the heroine was the most interesting part–I just felt like some of the most interesting things about her happened off page, I guess.

  2. Merrian says:

    Did you see that Natalie at Radish Reviews reviewed Curse of Chalion in the last day or so?

    I’ve been reading Vorkisigan fanfic all week so I have been spending a lot of time in Vorbarr Sultana and Vorkosigan Surleau by the long lake.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I did, but she told me not to read it until I got past a certain part of the book, so I wouldn’t be spoiled. Normally I don’t mind spoilers, but I went into Chalion with pretty much no expectation except that it would be good, and I’m enjoying that feeling of discovery too much to peek.

  3. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I’m reading The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty. I’m not too far in, but the setting of Northern Ireland in 1981 is interesting to me. Especially since certain events/cultural references are ones that I grew up with (the pope being shot, who shot JR?, etc.) but filtered through such a different place and person.

    “It’s like Little House on the Prairie: The Really Dark Years (or, the Subtext).”
    I had to laugh at that, as I was shocked by my adult reaction to reading Little House on the Prairie to my then-four-year-old many years, after I had enjoyed the series as a child. And my entire take on the book was so different, and so much darker.

    I had thought I’d read more of Malla Nunn’s series, but I don’t think I can go back to the racial tensions there. At least not now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I read–or actually listened to–McKinty, and I really enjoyed the evocation of the 80s too. It’s not “historical” but interesting to see what details he chose (that was early high school for me, so I remember those things too). I liked the book a lot. I thought the setting felt very real but after I finished I noticed some Goodreads reviews that said “I grew up there and he got it all wrong.” I think people can have very different views of the same time/place, and having moved away may affect that.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Also, this is a great post on reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, among others, as a mother. Her comments about Ma are interesting.

  4. victoriajanssen says:

    It’s a historical, but have you tried Mark of the Lion by Suzanne Arruda? It’s set post-WWI. Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi is pretty good. Detective is African-American, so we get his perspective on Africa.

  5. The Six Sisters! I loved those – read them back in the 80s when i was a schoolgirl. Deirdre and Desire is very good too and the ones about Daphne and Diana I also liked. I do love the priggish Minerva best though and yes, you wouldn’t get such a heroine now – nor do you get many grotesques like Lady Godolphin anymore.

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